Grace Bumbry, a barrier-shattering mezzo-soprano whose huge vocal vary and transcendent stage presence made her a towering determine in opera and certainly one of its first, and largest, Black stars, died on Sunday in Vienna. She was 86.
Her dying, following a stroke in October, was confirmed in a statement by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the place she was lengthy a mainstay, performing greater than 200 times over 20 years.
Growing up in St. Louis in an period of segregation, Ms. Bumbry got here of age at a time when African American singers have been a uncommon sight on the opera stage, regardless of breakthroughs by luminaries like Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson.
But with a fierce drive and an outsize charisma, Ms. Bumbry broke out internationally in 1960, at 23, when she sang Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” on the Paris Opera.
The following yr, she landed in one thing of a national scandal in West Germany when Wieland Wagner, a grandson of Richard Wagner, solid her as Venus, the Roman goddess of affection, in a modernized model of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” on the storied Bayreuth Festival.
She was the primary Black girl to carry out on the pageant, solid as a personality sometimes portrayed as a Nordic ideally suited in an opera written by a composer identified for his antisemitism and German nationalism. The pageant — and newspapers — have been flooded with letters asserting that the composer would “flip in his grave.”
Ms. Bumbry was undeterred. Indeed, she was effectively ready.
“Everything that I had realized from my childhood was now being examined,” she recalled in an interview with St. Louis Magazine in 2021. “Because I bear in mind being discriminated towards within the United States, so why ought to it’s any completely different in Germany?”
The viewers didn’t share such misgivings: Ms. Bumbry was showered with half-hour of applause. German critics have been equally enchanted, christening her “the Black Venus.” The Cologne-area newspaper Kölnische Rundschau credited her with an “artistic triumph,” and Die Welt known as her a “large discovery.”
Her landmark efficiency helped earn her a $250,000 contract (the equal of greater than $2.5 million now) with the opera impresario Sol Hurok.
It additionally received her one other honor: a efficiency on the White House, in February 1962. On the recommendation of European buddies who had seen Ms. Bumbry at Bayreuth, Jacqueline Kennedy, the primary woman, invited her to sing at a state dinner attended by President John F. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Chief Justice Earl Warren and different Washington energy brokers.
Suddenly, she was a star.
“If there’s a extra thrilling new voice than Grace Bumbry’s skyrocketing over the horizon I’ve not heard it,” Claudia Cassidy wrote in The Chicago Tribune in a assessment of a recording of her arias the identical yr. “This is a wonderful voice, by grace of the gods given its likelihood to be heard in its fullest magnificence.”
Of her Carnegie Hall debut in November 1962, Alan Rich of The New York Times gave a certified assessment, however allowed that “Miss Bumbry has a beautiful, clear, ringing voice and quite a lot of management over it.”
“She can swoop with out the slightest effort from a superb excessive to a good looking resonant chest tone,” he wrote.
Ms. Bumbry transcended not solely racial perceptions however vocal categorizations as effectively. Originally a mezzo-soprano, she made a placing departure by taking over soprano elements, too, which gave her entry to marquee roles in operas corresponding to Richard Strauss’s “Salome” and Puccini’s “Tosca.”
“She gloried in the truth that she was capable of carry out both roles in Verdi’s ‘Aïda,’” Fred Plotkin wrote in a 2013 appreciation for the web site for WXQR, the New York public radio station. “She may very well be Tosca and Salome, but in addition Carmen and Eboli.”
Ms. Bumbry displayed a broad vary in her selection of roles. In 1985, she obtained raves for her efficiency as Bess within the Metropolitan Opera’s fiftieth anniversary efficiency of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” regardless of her conflicted emotions a couple of folks opera set among the many tenements of Charleston, S.C., and rife with unflattering Black stereotypes.
“I believed it beneath me,” she stated in an interview with Life journal. “I felt I had labored far too arduous, that we had come far too far to must retrogress to 1935. My means of coping with it was to see that it was actually a chunk of Americana, of American historical past, whether or not we favored it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was nonetheless going to be there.”
Grace Melzia Bumbry was born on Jan. 4, 1937, in St. Louis, the youngest of three kids of Benjamin Bumbry, a railroad freight handler, and Melzia Bumbry, a schoolteacher.
A musical prodigy as a youth, she honed her abilities within the choir at St. Louis Union Memorial Church and by performing Chopin on the piano at women’ tea events. At 16, she noticed a efficiency by Ms. Anderson, who would develop into a mentor, and was impressed to enter a singing contest on an area radio station. She took prime prize, which included a $1,000 warfare bond and a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music. She was nonetheless denied admission due to her race.
“The actuality was wounding,” Ms. Bumbry stated in an interview with The Boston Globe. “But when it occurred, I additionally thought, I’m the winner. Nothing can change that. My expertise is superior.”
Embarrassed, the radio contest organizers organized for her to seem on “Talent Scouts,” a nationwide radio and tv program hosted by Arthur Godfrey. After listening to her heart-rending efficiency of “O Don Fatale,” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” the avuncular Mr. Godfrey knowledgeable the viewers, “Her title shall be some of the well-known names in music in the future.”
The publicity helped put her on a path to Boston University, and later, Northwestern University, the place she fell below the tutelage of the German opera luminary Lotte Lehmann, who grew to become one other worthwhile mentor as Ms. Bumbry moved towards her debut in Paris.
As her star continued to rise through the years, Ms. Bumbry was by no means afraid to inhabit the prima donna function offstage in addition to on, outfitting herself in Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar de la Renta and tooling round in a Lamborghini.
After marrying the tenor Erwin Jaeckel in 1963, she settled in a villa in Lugano, Switzerland. The couple divorced in 1972. Ms. Bumbry left no quick survivors.
Beyond her prodigious vocal abilities, Ms. Bumbry introduced a well-known sultriness to her roles, a fame she put to good use for a 1970 efficiency of “Salome” on the Royal Opera House in London.
She leaked phrase to the press that for the racy “Dance of the Seven Veils,” she would strip off all seven veils, all the way down to her “jewels and fragrance,” as she put it — though the jewels, it turned out, have been adequate sufficient to function a “modest bikini,” as The New York Times famous.
It hardly mattered. “In the historical past of Covent Garden,” Ms. Bumbry stated in a 1985 interview with People journal, “they by no means bought so many binoculars.”
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